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'I cannot remain silent when faced with the murder of a human being' – Gozo Bishop Mario Grech

Kevin Schembri Orland Sunday, 13 September 2015, 11:00 Last update: about 10 years ago

Gozo Bishop Mario Grech took a strong stand against abortion during an interview with The Malta Independent on Sunday, adamant that human life must always be at the forefront.

He explained that this is especially true in cases where a human being is defenceless. "I think, in my ethical opinion, this is non-negotiable. This doesn't mean I am going to interfere with the state or tell the legislature what to do. However, as a citizen, I cannot remain silent when faced with the murder of a human being. If we believe that from the moment of conception there is life, then every intervention that can weaken, put in peril or remove life, is ethically wrong."

He went on to say that as a spiritual leader, he has to say that abortion is the murder of innocents.

Recently, the Pope said that during the upcoming year of Jubilee, women who terminated pregnancies could be granted forgiveness by priests. Questioned about his opinion of the Pope's decision, the bishop said that this is nothing new.  "Abortion is always a sin. According to Church law, in normal circumstances not all priests can forgive sins considered to be 'reserved sins'. In normal circumstances, if someone asks forgiveness for such a sin, the priest would require special permission to forgive. The priest would then ask the Bishop without giving personal information or mentioning the person's name. This is the normal procedure in such cases. Aside from the fact that there are certain offices which can forgive reserved sins, the Maltese and Gozitan Churches have, on occasion, told priests during lent that they can forgive reserved sins, even abortion."

Asked if such cases regarding the forgiveness for abortion have occurred in Malta or Gozo, the Bishop said - "its normal practice. The negative sense of abortion still exists within people; otherwise, they would not come and confess it. I know what it means for a person to have carried the weight of abortion on her conscience for a number of years, and who then, by the grace of God, one day comes forth and asks forgiveness, being born again."

Past corruption in the Gozitan church finances committee

Bishop Grech mentioned that there are two administrative councils in Gozo - one deals with the finances of the Gozo Church and the other with property administration.

He mentioned that in the past, there has been corruption within the Investment and Treasury Committee (that takes care of finances). "They (those on the Committee) need to be responsible and if there is an irresponsible person, there could be people who would be corrupted. Where I saw corruption, I took action". He confirmed that there have been cases in the past of corruption and he removed such persons from office.

The second Committee deals with the "little property we have. The Church's belongings belong to the people. I know of more than one case where someone wants the property belonging to the community - I say community because property belonging to the Church belongs to the community - where someone wants to usurp this property or take it. Maybe in civil society this occurs, but I will not give them up. When I became Bishop, I took an oath to properly administer the property of the Church in Gozo."

As an example, he said that there was someone renting a central property for Lm14 and the agreement came to a close. "They still wanted to keep the rent at Lm14. Is that just, is that justice? Again this is being handled by the Committee and I do not interfere in that, but I am careful as to who I appoint to the Committee. This has nothing to do with being attached to worldly possessions (answering to a letter published in the press, where Gozitan clergy wrote to a Cardinal claiming he was attached to material wealth), but if I am not responsible in the administration of the Church's possessions, then one day they would have reason to say I was irresponsible. Today I think the reputation I have is that I do not allow everything to just pass by."

He also said that he does not take decisions on his own, and when a major decision needs to be taken, he consults with a Council filled with priest representatives.

As for the allegation made in the media, reporting a letter sent to a Cardinal in 2014 which mentioned that a mother of a priest was taking up the space of 20 priests at a Church-run retirement home, the Bishop said: "That is not true. It's normal practice that a Parish priest, if moved to a different Parish, would take his sister or his parents with him. Otherwise, who will look after them? This is the case. We have a pastoral centre where there are two priests, and one took his mother with him, but she is not taking up the space of others. Bishop Cauchi had built that centre to also be home for the retired clergy and there have been those who did go there. Recently, we accepted the request of one elderly priest who lived out the remainder of his days there. It's not right to try and create these doubts."

'When I hear about an allegation regarding abuse of minors, I call the priest and limit his ministry as a precaution'

Turning to Dominic Camilleri, a priest who was recently defrocked over allegations of child abuse that drew media attention, the Bishop was asked about the allegation that Dominic Camilleri held mass privately while under suspension from doing so.

"When I hear about an allegation regarding abuse of minors, I call the priest and limit his ministry as a precaution. My predecessor did the same, I think, and in fact, I think he went further and suspended all his ministries. This means that the priest will not be able to hold mass, let alone hear confession. It was reported that in 2013 he held private mass - what does that mean, in a private home? One would not have control over that, but if were in a public place, then yes, that would fall under the responsibility of the Bishop. However, this doesn't appear to have happened and, in fact, the opposite did. There were a number of occasions when he, for a family reason, would need to administer his ministry and would always seek permission. Many times, that permission was not given." The Bishop explained that before 2013 there was a very personal matter where the priest was granted permission. After May 2013, however, he was not granted permission for any such requests.

He spoke of the alleged uproar that occurred within the Gozitan Church regarding the handling of Dominic Camilleri's case, Bishop Grech said he wasn't aware of it. "Not to say that I completely deny it, but I am not aware of it." He also said that he wasn't aware of the letter sent to the Cardinal and copied to the Pope. He said that he hadn't been contacted by the Holy See or the Apostolic Nuncio, but rather to the contrary. When he saw the first report in the papers, he contacted the Apostolic Nuncio who told him to continue business as usual and not to consider what is being said in the papers.

Bishop denies that he is a bully

The media report read that the letter held a number of strong allegations including that he was considered to be a bully. Bishop Grech said that "It's not for me to describe myself, but I can assure you I try to do everything but bully. One of my secretaries once told me - 'Priests come here and always leave smiling after a meeting. It's not in my nature to bully. I'm aware that I'm a bishop. Everyone is human and has his or her own shortcomings; however, I try to be careful to be meek and gentle."

Turning to the issue of child abuse, the Bishop explained that the Church in Malta and Gozo, in 1999, set up what was called the 'response team'. "Later it changed name, but not substance. Today, it is known as the Safeguarding Commission. I was on the Commission that created the policy, as well as on the team. I am aware of our responsibilities. I have to say this, however: whenever there was a case involving a Gozitan priest, I would excuse myself, as, being from Gozo, I lived with them and did not wish to judge them. When I was made Bishop, the Holy See organised a course for baby bishops. Once appointed, I was no longer on the response team and I remember that Central European bishops were not even aware of abuse by priests on children, or perhaps they didn't want to be aware. In the UK, however, their mentality was like ours. This was the situation in 2006. In Italy, for example, they wouldn't even mention the issue and would continue to handle it like they did before. Seven years prior, we had set up the response team. The Safeguarding Commission is competent for both the Archdiocese in Malta and Gozo and Mr Andrew Azzopardi is both the Archbishop and my delegate, so such cases are in the hands of the Commission."

On the length of time such cases take to conclude, the Bishop believes it is not fair on either the alleged victims or the alleged perpetrator. "Only when the final decision is made, truth is established, so until then the priest is always presumed guilty. It's not fair on anyone. It was taking too long and this is why we changed policy, but this length of time is not only evident in Malta, but also in Rome. I think it's a matter of manpower. The more case load one has, the slower the process."

The Bishop was asked if any preventative policies exist, rather than tackling cases after they occur. "We check the register and if they are not there, then there is no reason to withhold them. Nowadays, during their Priestly formation we do deal with this issue and speak with our students regarding the gravity of such acts and their responsibilities as men of the Church. The policy for cases of sexual abuse has a preventive section as well.

"I think that people must be confident that we do not hide things from the public. I assure you that there is not a single case of abuse by priests that I do not move before the Safeguarding Commission or the police. There are a few misconceptions, and I think there are a few people who want to put the Church in a bad light. As a Bishop, I can say that if such cases come before me, I will not allow them to gather dust on a shelf. I have to put forward a question. While such cases involving priests are ugly as trust comes into play, not just trust in the person but in God as well, why is it that only cases involving priests are exposed? There are so many cases of sexual abuse of minors, even within our society, and we don't speak about them. I have no problem with cases regarding pastoral functionaries being addressed, as the safety of minors is paramount. However, I think that society must also examine its conscience, as there are cases that are buried in the sand which occur in other areas of society committed by professionals."

As to whether or not Dominic Camilleri's case was referred to the police, Bishop Grech indirectly said it wasn't. He said that when his case began, the law was not in place. "The law came into effect in 2011, and in cases which are brought to us after 2011, we are obliged to follow the law."

In 2011, guidelines were published instructing bishops to co-operate with the police and respect the relevant local laws in investigating and reporting allegations of sexual abuse by the clergy to the civic authorities.

Canonisation of Mikiel Attard still in early stages

Turning to the canonisation of Mikiel Attard, Bishop Grech explained that it is still in the very early stages. "I had received a petition from the clergy asking me to start the process, as Father Mikiel Attard is a great benefactor and was also a spiritual director. I appointed the Tribunal and they are currently hearing testimony."

"There is no culture of resignations"

The Bishop said that there is a lot of good in Gozo. "There are times when I speak with other bishops and feel disheartened," but there are other times when he says, "thank you, God for the good here." There is a strong collaboration between the clergy, contrary to what has been alleged, Bishop Grech said. "There is no culture of resignations and whenever I speak with a priest about possibly moving to a particular office, they accept. This doesn't mean it's always plain sailing."

He spoke highly of the Gozitan parish priests. "I want to thank them for all the work they do. There are times when I feel the heavy burden of my ministry, but I understand parish priests also feel the burden. We have to deal with the Community and such weights are present when we have to take certain decisions as a leader within the Community. Not everyone will understand you."

A re-definition of how we call our values

As for whether the community is losing its old values, the Bishop said there is need for a redefinition on "how we call these values. I think the problem lies with language. There are some values ingrained within us that nobody can teach you - not a priest, nor a bishop. But we need to find the right phrases and concepts to express these. We still use concepts that were meaningful but no longer are. Not because people are bad, but rather because we are not understanding one another. There is the risk that other things replace our values, but I think that deep down, people are very rich in values and this fills me with courage for the future of the Church. The fact that a person is asking and seeking means that one day, the person will meet Jesus Christ, who will be the answer to all the questions we have. The search for values makes it possible for contact between God and man. This is our mission as the Church."






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